Stephen Frears’ Liam is a movie about non-communication. Tracing the unutterable fears and frustrations of a working class family in 1930s Liverpool, the film finds its emotional focus in the adorable Liam Sullivan (a delightful Anthony Burrows). He’s a “hero” not in any traditional sense, but as the embodiment of all his family’s emotions, ranging from love to terror. Liam’s stutter, simultaneously endearing and agonizing, is an extension of his whole family’s inability to articulate their responses to any of the forces that move them, from the Church to their employers and landlords and finally, to a rising tide of Fascism and local violence.
Liam‘s storyline is familiar, especially (as many reviewers have already pointed out) if one has seen 1999’s Angela’s Ashes. As with Alan Parker’s film, with Frears’ Liam, we see through a young boy’s eyes his family’s struggle to stay together and survive grinding poverty. Initially, the Sullivans appear to live a meager but comfortable life: in the opening scene, the kids watch as their parents get dressed up and go out to celebrate the New Year. Despite being told not to, the kids can’t resist the urge to sneak down to the local pub, pressing their faces against the glass to watch the grown-ups dancing, drinking, and rejoicing.
But soon, Liam’s dad (Ian Hart), at first visibly proud to be working, still providing for his family when many of his neighbors are unemployed, finds himself out of work as well. From there, that first happy family image begins to disintegrate. Liam’s older brother, Con (David Hart), and sister, Theresa (Megan Burns), must help support the family financially (Theresa adding insult to injury by working as a maid for the owner of the shipyard where her dad has been laid off); Mum (Claire Hackett) starts pawning their belongings with the hopes that things will turn around and she can buy them back; and Dad dumps all his anger and bitterness into the misplaced repositories of race and class, eventually finding an outlet by becoming a black-shirted Fascist.
The family members and their roles are all familiar: the strong, self-sacrificing, religious mother, the veritable leader of the family; the beloved, but emasculated and undermined father; the sullen, rebellious older brother; the doting, maternal sister, even Liam, the cute little poor boy. They all border on the stereotypical, to be honest, but the performances are so good that the stereotyping might be easily forgiven, or at least willingly ignored.
Coinciding with this growing chasm of non-communication between family members and Dad’s rage, Liam’s stutter gets worse and his frustration with it more apparent: we see him begging his Mum to write down what she needs at the corner shop, so he won’t have to try to relay messages for her. In a most excruciating moment, he tries to respond when his teacher asks him if he went to Mass and Communion; Liam punches his fist against his thigh relentlessly, trapped stammering the same syllables over and over again.
The whole family responds to pressure and crisis in much the same way. Liam’s stutter reflects everyone’s communicative inabilities: they are all stutterers, really, at an emotional level. And their relationships are progressively more strained as their financial circumstances become increasingly dire, especially between Mum and Dad. Eventually, they just stop talking: he storms out of the house when Mum scrapes together her “widow’s mite” to give as her tithe to the Catholic church; and she and the kids can only stare at Dad dumbfounded when he shows up in the Fascist black-shirt uniform. At one of a series of silent meals, Con can’t take it anymore and stomps away from the dinner table, screaming at his parents, “For God’s sake, speak to each other!”
All of this stuttering is not simply in response to their strained relationships or even to their poverty. They are also beleaguered by the very systems that seem intended to support them. So, the Catholic Church bears down heavily on them financially as well as morally. Ironically, the prayers, rituals, and recitations that Mum, Theresa, and Liam all repeat, looking for solace, are revealed to be yet another form of their stuttering: the religion they cling to sets them in yet another unending circle of repetition and leads them nowhere. Furthermore, Dad’s growing anti-Semitism stems from his inability to work, like a man should; and as the number of jobs decrease, the men who were his friends compete with one another. He clings to the reasoning that he’s out of work because the Jewish bosses have lowered the price of labor by hiring Irish workers. Like his family’s rote prayers, the slurs that follow from such reasoning demonstrate that nothing that can help him or his family, just continuously regenerates his anger.
There are only two circumstances in which Liam is able to speak without impediment: when he sings or rhymes what he means to say (that is, when he is free to be the child that he is and not thrust into an adult world of worry and responsibility), and when his frustration breaks through his own speech pattern in an enraged outburst. The latter serves as foreshadowing for the film’s final violent outburst: just as Liam’s breakthroughs always result in punishment, Dad’s building fury finally forces him to (misguided) action, only to have it double back on him in such a horribly destructive way as to ensure a permanent silence between him and his family.
Sadly, and perhaps realistically, Liam never fills in its silent spaces. Liam and his family remain trapped by inarticulation and repetition. It is nerve-wracking to watch them all, the words that need to be said apparent to us (and maybe them) but unspeakable, and so the silence just reiterates itself endlessly.